Twelve Angry Men it is not. In that serious courtroom drama from the 1950s, twelve – yes, angry – sequestered jurors debate in real time the guilt or innocence of a man suspected of homocide. In Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo, running at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through April 27, five actors portray lawyers, court clerks, defendants, and other sundry characters as they present, in highly theatrical fashion, the entire oral argument of a famed 1991 Supreme Court case exploring the boundary between freedom of expression and public indecency.
Three suitably black-robed actors portray all nine justices, roaming the stage in reclining leather chairs as they debate the finer and lower points of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., wherein a group of exotic dancers challenged an Indiana public decency law requiring them to “cover up” with pasties and G-strings. Who says jurisprudence can’t be fun?
In its seventy-odd minutes, Arguendo – a Latin phrase meaning “for the sake of argument” – does not unfold in real time, either, but the very nature of reality may be up for debate. These judicial eminences spin, turn, wisecrack, and contribute to a fundamental dance quality that underscores the entire proceeding, while behind them, a constant stream of video projections highlights relevant legal texts and constitutional precedents. One is hard pressed to imagine James Madison debating the first amendment with an exotic dancer, but it is the comic absurdity of this modern-day court case, along with its earnest exploration of a very real issue – the nature and limits of free speech – that is the heart of Arguendo.
Literally “taking a page from the book” isn’t new for Elevator Repair Service, a New York-based experimental theatre troupe founded in 1991. Since that time, they have mounted acclaimed theatrical adaptations of a number of non-dramatic texts, primarily novels, including a six-hour, verbatim presentation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, called Gatz, in 2010. But presenting the entirety of a celebrated, or at least much discussed, Supreme Court case is a first, if not an actual precedent. The idea originated with ERS Artistic Director John Collins, who also directs all of the company’s productions.
“Arguendo follows very generally in the category of things we’re interested in,” Collins explains. “We like texts that are problematic, where there are interesting problems to solve. That’s our creative method – to find things to put on stage that weren’t meant to be there.”
It’s a good bet the justices who heard the case – including the Court’s first female member, Sandra Day O’Connor, and current members Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy – never dreamed they’d see themselves onstage arguing the dancers’ suit. As one might guess, the justices are not available for comment. But the judicial record is clear: In a divided opinion, the Supremes ruled against the dancers of Indiana’s Kitty Kat Lounge and Glen Theatre 5 to 4.
As for Collins, he doesn’t remember hearing or reading about Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. at the time the case was tried (as it happens, the same year ERS was founded). A self-confessed Supreme Court junkie who regularly follows cases on Oyez.org, a website providing text and audio of high court decisions, Collins stumbled upon the 1991 case and was intrigued.
“I thought this case needed to be heard onstage,” Collins reflects. “There’s wonderfully absurd humor in it; humor in the service of trying to understand constitutionally and conceptually what’s going on. The questions raised about what is art and whether what’s going on is expression or conduct are interesting for us both aesthetically and artistically.”
The central argument of the case was whether the exotic dancers’ work – done indoors in public space, completely in the nude – could be considered a form of artistic expression covered by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee or was really a form of public conduct violating Indiana’s prohibition against complete public nudity.
Allowing for some sympathy with the dancers’ complaint, Collins insists that he and his company are not taking sides in Arguendo, although one group does get more dramatic play.
“We are making some kind of statement,” Collins asserts, “but we’re not advocating for one side or another. For us, it’s just a kind of joyful celebration of the Court’s debate, how they move ideas around, challenge each other. On a lot of different levels it’s a sort of intellectual dance piece, I guess.”
While Collins has some questions about aspects of the Court’s ruling, especially assumptions about the effects of public nudity, it’s the intellectual contest and insight into the legal process that excite him. It’s clear that, in this respect, he’s a theatremaker on a mission, as much enthusiastic high school policy sci teacher as avante-garde artist.
“If I have any agenda at all, it’s just to make people share my excitement about the Supreme Court process,” Collins says. “We’re exploiting the natural humor to a specific end, to wake up the audience’s thinking and open a door to the Court in this strange funhouse sort of way, but one that offers compelling insights into a lesser-known branch of government.”